Inherent intelligence has more impact than grit

16th September 2016 at 00:00
No crowing about grit: The idea of character education could just be 'snake oil', academics have said
Fads without grounding in evidence have too much influence in education – if we want to be truly progressive, we must accept that ability is largely predetermined

Given the noble propensity of teachers to reflect on their practice even during a much-deserved holiday, many summer reading lists will have included Angela Duckworth’s book Grit. Unfortunately, the only thing she has conclusively proved is the observation of University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson that “it is very difficult to find a discipline that is more susceptible to fads than educational psychology”.



There is no evidence that grit can be taught, and every minute trying to do so is one where real knowledge and skills are not passed on. We urgently need to close this gap – between what is believed in education and known in science – if we are narrow the more important one between the life chances of the poorest children and their wealthier counterparts.

For those who need convincing, a recent meta-analysis in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology covering nearly 70,000 people concluded that the trait’s very existence was “in question”, that mistakes in Duckworth’s empirical work led to “incorrect inferences about the size of observed results” and that, overall, “grit is far less important than has commonly been assumed and claimed”.

The University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has stated that Grit’s “educational implications” are “underdeveloped and premature” and may just be “snake oil”. It is a worrying echo of a previous fad, Gardners’ theory of multiple intelligences, of which University College London professor of psychology Adrian Furnham wrote: “Despite its popularity, [it] has been consistently attacked and criticised by those working empirically in the area.”

Why do theories without clear validity in data and criticised by the leading academics find willing advocates in education?

First, teachers are given insufficient support and training in interpreting research, and are bombarded by pseudoscience championed by groups with an interest in short-term headlines, not long term problem-solving (especially politicians). Second, there is clear data and academic consensus on what makes pupils succeed in school. But people just don’t like the answers very much.

Nicholas Mackintosh’s balanced summary in IQ and Human Intelligence of a wide range of research and opinion reports “a consistent finding that IQ at one age predicts educational achievement” (and supports a US study in finding that preparation or test-taking skill is not the reason.

Why do theories without clear validity in data and criticised by the leading academics find willing advocates in education?

IQ jumping

Professor Robert Plomin of King’s College London has pointed out that the existence of inherent general intelligence (IQ) is one of the “core constructs” in behavioural genetics. Peterson echoes him, calling it “the most well-validated concept in the social sciences”. Questioning the validity of IQ tests or intelligence, says Stuart Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh, author of Intelligence: all that matters, is akin to climate change denial or thinking that vaccines cause autism.

Vanderbilt University in the US has undertaken a 50-year longitudinal study of 5,000 pupils that confirms the predictive power of standardised tests. It also supports the smart fraction theory showing that the people with the highest IQs make a disproportionate creative contribution in fields such as science, academia and the economy. Well-validated personality traits, particularly conscientiousness, have also been proven to explain a significant amount of the variation in pupils’ performance.

Teachers’ everyday classroom experience confirms this enormous body of research: a substantial portion of variation in pupil performance is determined by inherent ability. Teachers just worry that acknowledging this undermines their vocation and will lead to reduced opportunity for some pupils.

Well it doesn’t have to be that way. First, the research does not at all support the idea that education is futile or lives are wholly genetically determined (the tests explain only part of performance variation and their validity lies at a group, not individual level). Being taught the best that has been discovered, created and written should be the birthright of every child. High-quality teaching counts more than any educational intervention.

To use an Olympic metaphor, Mo Farah was probably born with more potential for long-distance running than I was. There is, however, no doubt that his success is also down to world-class training and that I would benefit from adopting some of his regime (on this point, I am showing a lack of grit that would appal Duckworth).

Second, it was progressives and reformers such as R H Tawney and Charles Trevelyan who championed aptitude tests as the cornerstone of a socially mobile society. What can be more egalitarian than a belief that each should achieve on the basis of ability? What is more reactionary than wanting environment (where wealth and privilege rule) to determine all?

It’s time for those of us who believe in the ability of education to empower individuals and enrich societies to reclaim the progressive mantle for aptitude tests and rigorous science.

Research and rescue

The scientific method and research on intelligence and personality traits should be at the core of initial teacher training and CPD. ResearchEd should be given every support and encouragement. The Department for Education should increase the funding and scope of the Education Endowment Foundation and step away entirely from promoting any pedagogical research or practice. Ofsted judgements of teacher quality and leadership are not based on rigorous research and should be scrapped, reducing inspections to data analysis, checks for child safety and spotting egregious practice such as teacher absence.

Pupils should sit IQ and personality tests on entering primary and secondary (Cognitive Abilities Tests are already widespread in Year 7) and we should adapt Progress 8 and primary accountability to use this benchmark. Teachers could use them for earlier identification of special educational needs and to truly personalise learning. The pupil premium should be given out according to scores on these tests, which are a better indicator of increased educational need than being on free school meals.

We should allow the creation of smart fraction schools selecting the top 1-2 per cent of pupils (with regular chances to come in and out). This would utilise the finding of David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow of the University of Vanderbilt that “special educational opportunities…can markedly enhance the development of talent” while causing none of the etiolation of local provision associated with the old grammar school system.

The great physicist Richard Feynman observed that “nature cannot be fooled”. We can’t wish away the truth about what makes pupils succeed at school. We can only harness it to once again place science and education at the heart of a great progressive mission to make opportunity more equal.

Jamie Martin is a former special adviser at the Department for Education. He has co-founded an ed tech cluster in South Africa and advises education companies

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